November 16, 2022

#82: Disasterology – Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis, Dr. Samantha Montano

Hosted by Fran Racioppi

The world is seemingly ripe with disasters in every corner of the globe. They also seem to be getting worse. Fran Racioppi down with Dr. Samantha Montano; a self-proclaimed Disasterologist and the author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis. Samantha holds a PhD in Emergency Management and is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. 

Fran and Samantha break down the Hazard Event Scale explaining what takes an event from an emergency, to a disaster, to a catastrophe. They talk about the driving factors behind the increase in catastrophic events and the effects of our socio-economic policy, decaying infrastructure, lack of policy, and population movement.  

Samantha also defines preparedness and shares what it takes to be a successful emergency manager, which government organizations are getting it right, and where we need more leadership with the courage to take action.

Learn more about Samantha at disaster-ology.com and on Twitter and Instagram @samLmontano.

Listen to the podcast here

About Dr. Samantha Montano

TJP 82 | Emergency Management SystemDr. Samantha Montano became interested in disasters following a trip to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the Levee Failure. She worked with various nonprofits in New Orleans on recovery efforts related to both Katrina and the BP Oil Disaster in 2010. She has a B.S. in Psychology from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Emergency Management from North Dakota State University.

She is the author of Disasterology: Dispatches from The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis published in 2021 by Park Row.

Currently, Samantha is an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. She has taught courses on disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation, vulnerable populations in disaster, the political and legal foundations of emergency management, disaster communications, and disaster nonprofits.

Her research interests cut across areas of interest to emergency management. She primarily studies nonprofits, volunteerism, and informal aid efforts in disaster. She is a co-founder of Disaster Researchers for Justice and the Center for Climate Adaptation Research.

In addition to research, she is passionate about public engagement especially related to the climate crisis. She has been interviewed in many national publications including the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and published in the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, City Lab, and Vox, among others.

Disasterology – Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis, Dr. Samantha Montano

The world is seemingly ripe with disasters in every corner of the globe. They also seem to be getting worse. Hurricanes are stronger and more frequent. Winter storms are colder and more powerful. The summer’s hotter and drier. Wildfires raise. Floods consume entire cities and towns. Sometimes these events happen in succession. Other times, they happen all at once.

In all cases, response and recovery efforts are going to be needed and they’re going to be constrained, but why is this happening? Who’s going to lead in these times of chaos and confusion? For this episode, I sat down with Dr. Samantha Montano, a self-proclaimed disasterologist, and the author of Disasterology: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Crisis.

Samantha holds a PhD in Emergency Management and is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We break down the Hazard Event Scale, explaining what takes an event from an emergency to a disaster and to a catastrophe. We also talk about the driving factors behind the increase in catastrophic events.TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

Climate change is real and the climate status quo is changing, but in this conversation, we spend time chasing down the consequences of climate change, the effects of our socioeconomic policy, decaying infrastructure, lack of policy, and population movement. Samantha also defines preparedness in her terms.

We spend a lot of time in emergency management discussing the individual go bags and survival kits but disasters are often made and recovered from by groups and by policy decisions. Samantha shares what it takes to be a successful emergency manager, which government organizations are getting it right, and where we need more leadership with the courage to take action.

If you think you know a lot about disasters, stay tuned for our lightning round at the end where I challenge Samantha to give me the pros and cons of some of the most impactful events our nation has ever seen. Learn from my conversation with Samantha. Watch the full video version of our discussion on YouTube. Subscribe to us and follow @JedburghPodcast on all social media. Check out our website, JedburghPodcast.com. Learn more about Samantha at Disaster-ology.com and on Twitter and Instagram @SamLMontano.

Samantha, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me.

We live in this complex world that brings chaos and confusion at seemingly every turn. As individuals, and as a society, we never get to choose the timing of catastrophic events, the frequency, or the duration. Sometimes we face them in series, sometimes we face them in serial, and sometimes we face them all at once simultaneously. We had a pandemic, but we didn’t get to then say, “We’re not going to have any natural disasters. We’re not going to have terrorism threats.” All these other things aren’t going to happen just because we have a pandemic.

To effectively manage and lead through crisis and emergency, we look to emergency managers. Sometimes, like in your case, they’re trained professionals. Other times and most often, emergency managers tend to be people who, from our conversation with Eric McNulty on episode 70, you’re the person who’s in the role and the disaster comes, the catastrophe comes, and all of a sudden, you’re in charge and everyone’s looking to you or the phone rings in the night and someone has said, “You’re the person who needs to respond,” and you have to jump in. You have to do it.

You come from a long line of emergency managers. Your grandfather was one of the country’s first emergency managers in World War II. You hold a PhD in Emergency Management. You volunteered in response and recovery to a number of natural disasters. You’re an Assistant Professor of Emergency Management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and you’re the author of Disasterology: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Crisis.

I told you I read it. It was great. We’re going to get all about it. We’re going to talk about climate change, preparedness, and disaster justice. Also, we’re going to do a lightning round on when we got it right and when we got it wrong when I’m going to throw out a bunch of disasters and you’re going to tell me what we did right and what we did wrong. I appreciate you taking the time to join me, but before we get into it, I have to ask you. What is a disasterologist and can you define disasterology?

A disasterologist is anybody who studies disasters. There are all different kinds of disciplines that are interested in disasters and that are doing disaster research like historians, economists, psychologists, and sociologists. The overarching field that we’re all working within is what I would term disasterology. I’m working within the discipline of emergency management. I’m mostly focused on what we can do to prevent disasters, prepare for them, how we respond to them, and how we recover from them.

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“A Disasterologist is anyone who studies disasters. I’m working within the discipline of emergency management.”

You didn’t always want to be in emergency management. I have to ask you, what drew you to it?

I got started doing disaster work in New Orleans after Katrina and the levee failure. I grew up in Maine, on the East Coast.

Which is way different from Louisiana.

Yes. When Katrina happened, I was in high school. I had a very basic understanding of what hurricanes and levees were. I watched it unfold on TV but I was far removed from what was happening. I had the opportunity to go and volunteer for a week with my high school helping gut and rebuild homes.

Pretty much as soon as I got there, I realized the full extent of the need that existed in the city. There were all of these people that were coming to New Orleans to help, but it still wasn’t enough. I ended up moving to New Orleans and I lived there for four years working with all different kinds of recovery nonprofits doing anything and everything that needed to be done throughout the city. That’s how it all started.

Let me ask you about the difference between disaster and catastrophe because you opened the book with a bit of this conversation and you say, “Catastrophes are not just big disasters. They’re something different, something more complicated.” What is the difference in your opinion, between a disaster and a catastrophe?

This idea originates with some of the founders of disaster sociology. They’re looking at these different events that occur and whether or not an emergency, like a car accident that happens in your town, is the same as something like Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure. When we hold those two examples up, we say, “These are different,” and yet you see emergency management involved in both of those different types of events. In the process of working through what these different categories look like, the model that we use is what we would call the Hazard Event Scale.TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

You have emergencies on the low end, disasters in the middle, and catastrophes on the high end. What you’re doing there is not just looking in terms of impacts and the needs that are associated with that event, which go up in scale, but you’re also looking at who is responding and how they are going about that response.

What is the actual approach to managing these events? When you do that, you see that with emergencies. You’re using mostly local resources. You’re relying on your local first responders. Maybe the neighboring town comes to help out, but it’s handled locally. It’s handled within your existing plans and the existing trainings that those agencies are doing on a day-to-day basis.

When you get to disasters, we have disaster plans and most of the time, they’re pretty okay in the US. They meet most of the needs that we have during a disaster, although certainly you still see gaps and issues in those responses. When we get to catastrophic events, that’s where you see this complete breakdown in the emergency management system, in how politicians are responding, and what leadership looks like in these events. They become this entirely different type of event.

The reason this is important is that the way you plan for an emergency is going to look very different than the way you plan for a disaster, which is going to look different than the way you plan for catastrophes. In the US, we do well with emergencies for the most part locally. We’ve built out that infrastructure and system. We do okay with disasters but when we get to these catastrophic events, that’s where you see these complete breakdowns and you see higher numbers of death. You see this complete breakdown in the system.

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“The way you plan for an emergency is going to look very different than the way you plan for a disaster, which is going to look different than the way you plan for catastrophes.”

I wanted to ask you about leadership when it comes to emergency versus disaster versus catastrophe. Do you think that a disaster becomes a catastrophe or it could elevate because of a failure of leadership or is it because of the actual conditions, the event that happened?

It is a combination of both. The failure of leadership has the ability to start bumping something into a different category. Katrina is a good example of this. In that framing, we would call Katrina a catastrophe in the US context. When you look back at the leadership at all levels of government and among various agencies, you see that lack of communication, lack of coordination, that breakdown, and the absence of strong leadership during the actual response.

I always say that when General Russel Honoré showed up, that was when we saw leadership coming from the government for the first time in that event. At the same time, that’s leadership within the government. Certainly, there’s leadership among the community and among people who are impacted that manifests on a smaller scale but in thinking of leadership in terms of who is leading a response.

I want to talk about climate change because so many times when we talk about emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes, we are speaking in terms of natural disasters. You spent a lot of time in the book talking about climate change and its effects. You said that there are two separate but related factors to climate change.

The first one is that we all understand that we have to cut emissions to further prevent changes to the climate. I’m not even going to sit here and argue differently with you about that. That’s a fact. The world’s getting warmer. Weather patterns are shifting. We’re operating in more of the extremes. It’s colder than it used to be. It’s warmer than it used to be in the summer. There are powerful more intense storms. You talk about the urban heat island that’s created in these cities, which is fascinating, but in reality, the status quo is evolving and we have to start to figure out how are we also going to evolve.TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

The second factor is what I truly enjoyed. You talked about the consequences of climate change. You didn’t focus on the tactical level numbers and throw a lot of stats. “By 2020, it’s going to be this hot. In 2022, it’s going to be this hot.” You didn’t tell people to stop using electricity, grow their food, or buy solar cars. You tied climate change to the socioeconomic and societal changes we face as a nation and as communities. You focused on the complexity that’s caused by our decisions, human nature, and actions. All of these decisions are exacerbated in these times of emergency disaster and catastrophe by climate change events.

I’m going to read a quote just a little bit longer and then I’m going to ask you about it. You said, “Climate change is so insidious because it intertwines itself with our existing vulnerabilities and amplifies them. It further threatens what is already fragile and at risk. It takes these hazards that we’ve always had to manage, hurricanes, flooding, landslides, and wildfires, and changes the way they manifest.”

“These changes interacting with other factors like population movement towards high-risk areas, poorly written and enforced regulations, societal and economic inequality, decaying infrastructure, and poor development decisions create our risk. In other words, climate change paired with these demographics, regulatory, and policy factors is a recipe for disaster.” Why is this all a recipe for disaster?

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“We have for decades, and in some cases for centuries, made decisions, written policies and made decisions…without thinking about the future.”

There are all of these different factors as I outlined in that quote and they’re all coming to a head. For decades and in some cases, centuries, we have written policies and made decisions at all levels of government that have been made without thinking about our safety in the future and our ability to continue to live where we live and how we live in the future. What we have begun to see are all of these decisions manifesting in turmoil across the country. If you take infrastructure as one concrete example here.

We’re all on the same page. We have not maintained our infrastructure across the country in terms of basic maintenance, let alone making changes to that infrastructure to retrofit it and to deal with the changing hazards that we began to see with climate change. That fact alone is creating a tremendous amount of risk. If you look at development decisions, we’ve seen this, unfortunately, in Florida with Hurricane Ian. Houston is always the other example.

Infrastructure across the country is not maintained well to deal with changing hazards posed by climate change. This creates a tremendous amount of risk. Share on X

We have built entire neighborhoods and cities in dangerous places, and we’ve built them in ways that are dangerous. We have not accounted for flooding and for these other hazards that we know those places experience. There are consequences to those decisions that have been made, again, over a long time. Unfortunately, we’re at a point of needing to deal with those consequences across the country.

When we talked about infrastructure, the green dot map comes to mind. Can you talk about the effect of something like the green dot map on the psyche of a populace?

The green dot map is a reference to a recovery plan that was created for New Orleans after Katrina. There was a version of a map of the city that was shared at one point that had big green circles over certain neighborhoods. The implication was that those neighborhoods were not going to be rebuilt. Those were going to be turned into green spaces with the stated purpose of helping with future flooding, using that land to help absorb water, etc.

When you go to rebuild after a disaster, we want to see that folks are implementing mitigation into their recovery and making changes to their community to prevent that same disaster from happening again in the future. However, at the same time, when that map came out and you are somebody who lives in that neighborhood, you have been through an incredibly traumatic event. You are probably still displaced. Maybe you’ve been able to come back to the city, but things are tough. You are trying to navigate an incredibly complex recovery process.TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

You are being told by the city, “We’re all united. We’re all going to come back together. We’re one city,” and then you see this map that says, “You don’t get to live here anymore. Your neighborhood isn’t as important as the neighborhood next to yours.” It’s incredibly isolating and painful. It’s in some ways feeling like your neighbors and your community has turned their back on you. Certainly, that is a strong example of how these decisions that we make, whether it’s before, during, or after a disaster can have these huge consequences on how people feel about their community and what the future looks like in their community.

We often think about disasters, emergencies, catastrophes, and events that we always think about them a lot and that they happen in succession, one at a time. You talk a lot about the fact that disasters don’t hit us one at a time and they don’t wait in line until the preceding disaster has ended. What happens when we have these multiple disasters or these events happening at any one time is that our resources begin to become constrained because they’re devoted to other things. So many times when we talk about disaster response, we leverage those within our community.

As you mentioned a few minutes ago, we also look to our neighbors, the towns, the cities, and the states next door, but what happens when they’re consumed with their own disaster or their own events? You spoke about the federal versus state responses and the fact that you called climate change a threat multiplier. What happens when we are in these situations where you have a city, you have a state, you have an area that encounters a disaster, but there is no help? There is no one else to look to.

There have been two recent examples of this in the US. The first was in the 2017 hurricane season. We had Harvey in Texas immediately followed by Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. We also had wildfires going on the West Coast at the same time. This was a poignant example of seeing what can happen to the emergency management system when there is so much need simultaneously across the country.

The way that our emergency management system has been designed, the local, state, and federal, all being a part of that system is that you start with the local government. Once they’re overwhelmed, you turn to the state. Once they’re overwhelmed, you turn to the Federal government. The problem with that approach is that when you have multiple parts of the country that are all simultaneously in need, resources are strained. We are used to having a disaster happen in one geographic location and us sending all of our resources there.

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“When you have multiple parts of the country that are all simultaneously in need, resources are strained.”

The next disaster happens and you send them all there. We’re able to get by with in some ways, surprisingly few resources nationally. 2017 was when we saw, “That is not going to work when you have this many events.” Part of the reason that you see such a failed response in Puerto Rico leading to such a high death toll compared to the other states is because resources were strained.

That wasn’t the only reason, but it was an important one. When you look back at the GAO reports and looking at FEMA, you see that they were strained. They were running out of employees. They had employees and positions that they weren’t trained to be in. The contracts that they had with businesses for providing food were running out. That contributes to this kind of failed response you see in Puerto Rico.

The second time that we’ve seen this was during COVID and particularly at the start of COVID. You have an unprecedented situation across the country where every single emergency management agency at every level activates essentially simultaneously. That reliance that you normally have on your neighboring jurisdictions from the state all of a sudden becomes much less clear and reliable. Certainly, people were helping each other where they could but it was a situation where everybody was focused on the response happening in their own community.

In the case of COVID, often people were more concerned about their response to themselves versus others because you have a situation where disaster requires people often to come together. Now COVID introduces this piece of, “We’re not.” How do we come together?

There were added logistical challenges of moving emergency operations centers all online and figuring out how to approach that piece of it.

You make a distinction between these large events like Maria, Katrina, Irma, and Harvey, large-scale disasters, and Hurricane Sandy versus the smaller, repetitive floods. If we think about the flooding that occurred in the Carolinas from 2014 to 2018, 2019, and that time period or the tornadoes in the Midwest. When you have these consistent series of smaller events that aren’t catastrophic per se, but they cause damage, they’re continuously happening. You have these assets that you continuously have to deploy at some capacity in order to respond and recover. Over time, how do those small events degrade the system?

It’s tough. Different communities can respond in different ways or we see community outcomes look different from place to place but generally, these smaller events can be difficult to respond to. They are at the local level, a serious event. There are a number of unmet needs. People need help rebuilding their homes. There are lost jobs. There’s an impact on the economy or whatever the case may be but it’s not big enough to capture any national attention, which means it’s probably not big enough to get help from any of the national disaster nonprofits.TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

It means that there probably isn’t going to be any serious fundraising or donations coming into that community. It may not even be big enough for that locality to apply for and receive federal assistance through FEMA. That leaves you with very few options. If you have impacts that aren’t covered by insurance and you don’t have a community that is independently wealthy, there aren’t a lot of options.

Over time, when you have one of those events, you can have multiple of those events and that adds up. Sometimes you see communities where folks start to move away and you start to see that community start to break apart or change in significant ways. At other times, it can almost have the opposite effect. Sometimes you see people who dig their heels in come together. There’s a lot of community organizing. People work together to try and find these more creative solutions and try to navigate around the various grant programs that might be available to them.

Oftentimes, those are the events that are overlooked because they are small. They don’t make national news and we focus on these larger events which are important. Especially as we start contending with climate change, when we say there’s going to be an increase in disasters, we’re not only talking about an increase in disasters and catastrophes.

As we start contending with climate change and the increase in disasters, there is also the call for increasing emergency-size events. Share on X

We’re also talking about an increase in those emergency-size events. In the same way that our system can become strained when dealing with large-scale disasters and catastrophes, the strain that we put on our local systems in dealing with emergencies starts bumping things up into that disaster category which has this domino effect on the whole system.

Let’s talk about preparation or preparedness. The tagline of the show is, “How you prepare today determines success tomorrow.” We talk about it in terms of leadership. We talk about it in terms of how we get ourselves, as individuals, our teams and our organization, the most mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared to lead and lead through the good times and the bad times.

I want to define preparedness in your terms though and what it means to be prepared when we talk about climate change. When we talk about emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes. Many times, in this world of emergency management, we get told we have to have go bags. We talk about stockpiling food, having water and gas for our vehicles, very tactically, what are we going to do when the hurricane comes or the tornado or the power outage.

You’ve taken though a more macro approach to this conversation. How do we look at this strategically? How do we look at the ability and our ability to proactively prepare ourselves to minimize the disaster impacts? You talk about social networks, connection, and access to technology that can provide warnings and communications.

Also, our physical and mental ability to adapt and persevere through these situations and these scenarios. Another thing that you said that was quite funny is, “I don’t need a survival kit because I have a purse.” I want to ask you first why that is. Why does the purse replace the survival kit, but also why is preparedness so much more than kits?

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“I don’t need a survival kit because I have a purse.”

I’ll address the purse issue first. When you go down the standard list that the Red Cross or FEMA has about what you should stockpile in your home, it’s like, “You should have food, water, medication, first aid, your family’s contact numbers, and those very basic things. Again, we should all have those at home but anybody who’s reading and carries a purse will tell you that have most of those things in your bag on a daily basis as a human being trying to navigate the world. It’s not three days of supply of food and water in your bag, but there are granola bars in there. You can get by. It’s fine.

When we’re conceptualizing what individual preparedness looks like, we need to take a much broader approach and also, recognize that many of us are already going through day-to-day life with those items and that we need to have this broader understanding of what this looks like. All of those traditional preparedness tasks are good things to do, but when you look at how people respond to disasters, one of the most consistent disaster findings we have from research is that people come together when disasters happen. You are very rarely responding to a disaster completely on your own.

There is not a single hero in a disaster like Hollywood portrays. It’s people coming together and working together, identifying a need in the community and working with the resources they can pull together to address that need. You’re more likely to be rescued in an earthquake by your neighbors, for example, rather than formally trained first responders, because those are the people who know you. They know that you were home. They know where you would’ve been in your house. They can get to you more quickly.

When we think about what we need to do to prepare what we need to do to survive a response and move through that recovery, it’s much more about our networks and the connections that we have with the people in our communities and with our families. That portrayal from research runs counter to this individualistic approach that we have so often taken in emergency management.

I would argue as we are thinking, hopefully, more about preparedness in the context of climate change, that we do what we can at the individual level, but that we think much more at an organizational level, at a community level, and a systems level. Again, when we talk about preparedness, we’re talking about the individual. What about preparing the emergency management system? That was where we lost capacity in 2017 and during COVID. It was much less what was happening at the individual level.

You talk about this shift from the individual mentality to the collective. We’re going to talk about some government organizations and the groups that come together in terms of volunteers that descend upon these situations. In times of stress, chaos, and emotion, human behavior goes inward. What we need in emergency management from our leaders is the ability for them to go outward. For them to go out, find answers, interact with people, be charismatic, understand the problem as it exists, and not necessarily be subsumed with themselves or the very tactical level solutions that may come to bear.

We talk in Special Operations and a lot on the show about the characteristics of performance that define elite organizations, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength. These nine are exhibited in so many ways when we talk about emergency management and disaster response. What characteristics are you looking for when you are seeking to train and develop emergency managers? I can ask you this question because you’re teaching now.

The first thing that always comes to mind for me is finding people who have a vision for emergency management. This is something we’re lacking in our field. For a lot of reasons, we have this operational, nose-to-the-ground mindset in emergency management and that can serve us well during an actual response, but for the rest of the time that you are doing your job, you need somebody who has a vision and who isn’t just checking boxes.

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“You need someone who has a vision and who isn’t just checking boxes.”

This is a huge problem for us in emergency management. You copy and paste the old response plan into a new document, put the new year on it, and call it good. Check that box. That is not doing anyone any favors. We need people who have a vision. Emergency management as a profession is changing right now. We’re being forced to change whether we like it or not. Anybody who comes into this profession right now who is passionate about the field and can articulate a clear vision for the path forward are people that I’d like to see in leadership positions.

Emergency managers must have a vision for the path forward and be truly passionate about their chosen profession. Share on X

The second big one for me is people who are respectful of colleagues, but also respectful of the communities that they serve. Respect is at the core and the foundation of building trust with the community, which is what emergency managers have to rely on when you’re standing there 24 hours before a hurricane telling everybody news that they don’t want to hear. Vision and respect are the two big ones for me.

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“Respect is really at the core and the foundation of building trust with a community.”

Do you have an example of someone who’s a mentor who’s done it right? I could ask you about what he’s done wrong. They don’t have to be perfect.

I don’t necessarily have a single person. I will say that there are some incredible local emergency managers across the country. There are people who are working in small towns that have been hit by disaster after disaster who do not at all have the resources that they need to be able to protect their communities.

There are a lot of amazing local emergency managers across the country who are working in these small agencies and communities who don’t have the resources that they need to keep their communities safe but are still doing everything that they can to move forward. A lot of them are at the beginning stages of developing a vision for what the field looks like in the future and working on figuring out how to get that vision implemented.

Let’s talk about the role of emergency management and disaster response organizations. The most common name we hear is FEMA. You talk a lot about them. The Federal Emergency Management Agency established in 1979 responsible for all phases of emergency management, mitigation, response, recovery, and preparedness. They used to have a direct line to the president as a cabinet position.

Post 9/11 with the reorganization of a lot of the agencies in the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA was moved under DHS, along with the Coast Guard and the Secret Service. It removed that direct line to the president that you believe and thought to be quite vital. This change, you said, created a whiplash amongst emergency managers. You’ve been critical of FEMA under DHS and believe that much of the chaos in emergency management has been caused because of this realignment. Can you talk about why the alignment under DHS created that and why do you believe it is so important for FEMA to have that direct line to the president?

There are three major things going on. One, you have this direct line to the president issue. You see Deanne Criswell, the FEMA Administrator seemingly working very closely with President Biden in the White House, but there is still that added layer between them of the DHS Secretary. When you look back to the Trump administration, you saw that there was fighting or disagreements between the head of DHS and Brock Long when he was the head of FEMA in the midst of Hurricane Florence. You see that real potential there.

Certainly, we saw during Katrina of this added layer of bureaucracy that you have to navigate in the middle of a response and that is Emergency Management 101. You want as little bureaucracy and people between you and the resources that you need. That’s one issue. The second issue is this demotion from being a cabinet-level agency that sometimes can get overlooked.

There must be as little bureaucracy as you can in emergency management. The fewer people between you and the resources you need, the better. Share on X

Prior to 9/11, the Head of FEMA was sitting in cabinet meetings. They had a seat at the table. They had more of an opportunity to build these one-on-one relationships with the other members of the cabinet whom they have to call on when disasters happen and whom they have to seek buy-in from before and after disasters as well. They were seen at the time, much more as an equal than they are now as one of many agencies within DHS.

The third issue that you see here is the confusion of missions. DHS is focused on terrorism and that is certainly of concern to emergency managers and one of the types of hazards that we want to be preparing for and dealing with when it happens. However, that is only one very small piece of what FEMA is needing to prepare the country for on a daily basis.

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“That is Emergency Management 101…you want as little bureaucracy as possible between you and the resources that you need.”

When you look at how budgets are tilted in terms of terrorism versus all the other hazards we’re dealing with, you start to see where the priorities are when you’re working within an agency in DHS. You also see an opportunity for DHS to step in and redirect the things that are happening within FEMA. You see the potential for redirecting parts of FEMA’s budget, which can all have negative implications across the phases of emergency management.

Let’s talk about the other hand because you’ve talked also a lot about the Red Cross and the importance of the Red Cross and its importance in emergency management. Where does the Red Cross get it right and why are they different organizationally from a government entity like FEMA?

I broaden it. It’s not necessarily the Red Cross specifically that’s important. It’s disaster nonprofits, any nonprofit that has a disaster-specific mission. There are approximately 80 national disaster organizations and there are many more that are operating at a more local level in the US. Nonprofits bring an important element of being able to navigate complicated situations and not be as tied to bureaucracy as the government is.

They’re able to be more flexible, which we often need during responses. Especially small local nonprofits are incredibly important to disaster response and recovery. They are the organizations that are working in those communities day to day. They have immense local knowledge that can influence the work that they’re doing during response and recovery and make them able to quickly identify the needs of their community and find the resources to address them.

If you want to take the nonprofit sector as a whole, they’re this vital piece of our overall emergency management system, which was by design by the way. Our emergency management system intentionally is designed for the government to be limited in how involved they are, particularly in individual and household recovery. It is, again, by design that the nonprofit sector is supposed to be filling that gap between what people can afford, what the government’s providing, and what they need in the aftermath of disasters.

How do you balance and manage the mass assault, the descendants of all of these organizations that come into a disaster area? You’ve seen it in hurricanes. You saw it in Hurricane Ian. We hear about the Cajun Navy bringing the boats in but we’ve also seen it in massive geopolitical events. We had Scott Mann on episode 77 and he ran Operation Pineapple Express.

It was a volunteer organization pulling people into Hamid Karzai International Airport and pulling Afghans out of Afghanistan. I won’t get into the retrograde or whatever you want to call it, but we see this a lot and there are all of these organizations that go in. Everybody has good intentions. Everybody wants to help. If you are there as the emergency manager, how do you balance this desire to help?

It can be tough. We see this with about every disaster. There’s this convergence of people who want to help. It’s been described by one disaster researcher as being a mass assault on the community. You have all of these people, oftentimes thousands, if not more, people showing up to a community that is in pieces and who are there with good intentions. These are people who want to help. They want to volunteer. From an emergency management perspective, on the one hand, we need them to be there. We do not have enough people who can address all of the needs in that community. We need volunteers to be involved in every single aspect of response and recovery.

At the same time, how do you manage all of these people? How do you set up a system for managing them quickly? This is something that, in the aftermath of Katrina, there was some thinking and some major efforts put into in terms of helping communities create plans for volunteer management ahead of time and thinking about how to set up what we call volunteer reception centers. How can you funnel all of these spontaneous volunteers to one location in your community and then sort them out there and send them off to do various tasks?

Again, depending on the situation, sometimes those volunteer reception centers work well and you can effectively spread out that spontaneous volunteer labor. Other times, it can be very overwhelming for a community, but generally, the thinking is that the more planning you’ve done ahead of time and the more resources you have set aside locally to be able to manage that, the better the community will be.

You said, “There’s no single policy, no magic amount of money, and no perfect plan that’s going to meet the needs of communities across the country. It’s much more complicated than that. Our failure to meet the needs of these communities requires no less than a movement for disaster justice.” What’s disaster justice?

I think about disaster justice as thinking about what changes are needed in our community, and in our society to create safe communities. By that, how can we be doing more effective and efficient emergency management? How can we make sure that when disasters do happen, we’re not seeing these disparities and impacts between communities of different classes and races?

How can we make sure that we are creating an emergency management system that does not just distribute aid equally to everybody, but disperses aid in an equitable way? Giving people what they need to get back to where they are or even better, get back to someplace even better than they were before the disaster. How can we go about making these longer-term investments in our community that are not as shortsighted as we have done in the past?

An ideal emergency management system does not only distribute aid equally to the people but also in an equitable way. Share on X

Whose role is that? Is it the government’s role? Who has to step up and do that?

It is everybody. Again, that’s because of how our emergency management system is designed. The government is one piece of it. It’s a very important piece but nonprofits have a role to play and the private sector has a role to play. Certainly, as individuals, we have a role to play as well. The obvious starting point perhaps is the government because we have some clear ways of organizing and addressing some of the low-hanging policy fruit. I think that also what government does before, during, and after a disaster signals and dictates a lot of what nonprofits, businesses, and individuals do.

We have to take action and you’ve given some concrete steps for what action might look like and I thought you summed it up well. You said that making the perfect preparedness kit and volunteering post-disaster isn’t going to be what keeps us safe. You’ve mentioned that we have to educate ourselves, organize, and take action.

TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

“We are creating an emergency management system that does not only distribute aid equally to everybody, but actually disperses aid in an equitable way.”

You’ve put a couple of different steps into taking action. You’ve also said something interesting about this idea that we have to do something and you said that it’s not about hope. Also, you don’t go looking for hope anymore. You have to have courage. We’ve talked a lot about courage and the willingness to act on this show.

I mentioned before we started that we did a conversation with Colin Beavan, who is an environmentalist, and a social activist. He was the no-impact man who lived in his apartment in New York City for a year on a complete carbon-neutral footprint. He talks about these limiting beliefs and he lays out the fact that there are three limiting beliefs. One is that people don’t think that they can individually make a change. It’s an uphill battle and nobody’s going to listen to them.

The second one is that it’s the role of the government, corporations, and the political parties to go do these things and tell people what to do and it can’t be a ground-up function to drive change. This third one is that it’s all going to be okay. One day, somebody’s going to figure it out and it might not be now, but eventually, somebody’s going to come and say, “If we all do these things,” and everybody will like the idea. All of a sudden, we’re going to do it and there’s going to be this monument metal change within society but the reality is it’s going to be none of those things.TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

The reality is that we as individuals have to stand up and say, “I may not make a change in the world and in society now. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in a year but if I take one step and I do it first for myself and I demonstrate that it can be done and I have the courage to act, will other people jump on board?” Can you talk about why you have thrown out this idea of hoping for the best and you’ve now focused your effort on having the courage to act?

I have a hard time finding hope in a lot of this work. This is not an oftentimes uplifting work that I’m doing basis. I have limited hours in a day and if I spend all my time trying to search for help, and look for stories that are hopeful, then I am going to be seeking those out to make myself feel better. I’ve reached the point where I don’t feel that I need to do that.

I have other things that are motivating me to work every single day and to chip away at creating change within our emergency management system. That’s an important thing for people to hear. There are some people who are motivated by that hope and thinking about hope for the future is what drives them into action every day. There are also people who don’t need that to get work done.

When you hear these broader conversations happening in climate spaces, a lot of times we get a little bit sidetracked by those stories about hope and searching for those stories about hope. Again, because this is such an urgent issue. If you’re not somebody who needs that, it’s okay to say, “I’m not going to spend my time dealing with that. I’m going to focus on these concrete actions that I feel like I have some influence or some control over and try to push those forward.”

Are you ready for our lightning round on disasters?

Yes.

Here’s the first one. Hurricane Katrina, top of mind, what went right and what went wrong?

What went right was the response from everyday Americans across the country. What went wrong was the government’s response.

The second one is the wildfires and drought in 2019 and 2020. We’re talking about California, Oregon, Washington, and Australia.

The Wildland Fire community is doing incredible things. I spent some time out there in Oregon. They’re working harder than anyone else anywhere in the country. They’re doing great. What went wrong is the complete failure of foresight across the board with drought conditions and what that means for the Western half of the United States.

Also, how do you change your activities based on the actual environmental conditions? The third one is what they called the snowpocalypse in the Southeast US in 2014 timeframe.

This is the one in Atlanta. People are going off the highways and being able to spend the night at gas stations or whatever. The emergency sheltering spontaneously emerged. What went wrong is probably government communication specifically with the public about what was happening and what resources were or were not available for them.

The next one. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 in New York and New Jersey.

What went well is that the group Occupy Sandy is always front of mind in terms of community organizing to meet immediate needs. What did not go well? There was a lost chance with Sandy in the aftermath. There was the political will to make broader national changes to our emergency management system because of the political weight that New York City has in the Federal government. There were some changes made, but we probably could have pushed things much further than we did.

I’m going to get away from the natural disasters and I’m going to give you 9/11.

The obvious thing that went right was the evacuation of Lower Manhattan, the boat lift, and spontaneous evacuation. What went wrong? Probably the biggest thing that went wrong was the changes to the emergency management system across the board in the aftermath.

It’s the reallocation of the DHS.

The creation of DHS and putting FEMA under DHS. They are turning the emergency management system upside down and backward wasn’t maybe the best move in retrospect.

The last one is COVID-19.

What went wrong? The complete breakdown of the US public health and emergency management systems was probably pretty high up there in terms of what went wrong. What went well? Again, I have to look at the local level. Communities that came together. If you think back to the very early days of neighbors putting out grocery signups to go get groceries for their elderly neighbors and that straight-level mutual aid that formed is something to be proud of.

I’m going to give you a bonus one and it’s what are we going to learn from Hurricane Ian?

There’s a cynical approach to this question. I don’t necessarily know that we will learn very much from it. It is hard to tell when you’re still very much in the midst of those early days of recovery, but Hurricane Ian is going to fall among a long line of hurricanes that we’ve had in recent years that have not led to any significant changes. One thing specifically coming out of certain parts of Florida is the importance of sending out evacuation orders in some places where they weren’t sent and should have been. Hopefully, that is a concrete lesson that we can learn again in the future.

One of the most fascinating things that I’ve seen in the Hurricane Ian coverage is the unexpected water level. When you look at the docks and the boats that are sitting inland, the fact that the dock pylons are still intact and the floating docks popped off the top. The boats in a lot of cases were still tied to the dock in a whole different area.

Samantha as we close out, the Jedburghs had to do three things every day to be successful. They had to be able to shoot. They had to be able to move. They had to be able to communicate. These were foundations or habits if you will. What are the three things that you do every day to set the conditions for success in your world?

Every day has to start with coffee. I need caffeine. Secondly, I live or die by my to-do list. If it is not written on the to-do list, it’s not happening. My third thing would be to try to be near the ocean at some point during the day going for a walk. I’m very fortunate to teach in a classroom that’s right next to the ocean, but any proximity to the water is good for the soul.TJP - E82 Disasterology Dr. Samantha Montano Author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Front Lines of The Climate Crisis

I love those three and they resonate with me because I try to do those things every day as much as I can. It starts with coffee. Stick to the to-do list and be near the ocean. There’s a healing power, a healing effect of the ocean and I talk about it all the time. You got to get out there and be in nature. We talk about these nine characteristics of elite performance used by Special Operations Command to recruit, assess and develop talent, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength.

To be an elite performer, you’re going to demonstrate all nine of these at different times. Not necessarily all at one time. You can’t, but based on the situation that you’re in, you’re going to have a couple of them. Great organizations think about what they need and what they need their leaders to demonstrate when they put them in certain situations and that’s how they recruit and assess their talent.

I say that because at the end of these, I take one and I think about our conversation. I think about you and what you exemplify on a daily basis. To me, that’s resiliency. Resiliency is defined as our ability to bounce back or to return after we’ve experienced an event but resiliency doesn’t begin when the event occurs. Resiliency starts in preparation. It starts well before the event occurs.

Our ability to be resilient as people, as teams, and as organizations, all comes down to what we talk about every time we get on this show. The tagline of the show is “How you prepare today determines success tomorrow.” Did we think about it? Are we ready? Have we prepared the right way? Tactically and strategically, it comes down to being an effective thought leader.

You’re one of the foremost thought leaders in emergency management. You’re continuing to set an example every day in everything that you’re doing. Disasterology was a great read bringing to light all of the strategic and tactical level things that we can do as individuals and organizations. Also, the socio-economic challenges that we face in climate change and emergency management. I thank you so much for spending some time with me telling this story, and I look forward to more great things to come.

Thanks for having me.

 

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